Understanding Reactivity and Anger

Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler look at why so many veterans react to everyday situations with such anger.

By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler

Angry manAs a result of their war experience, many veterans are quick to react to various stimuli. While reactions that range from complete detachment and isolation to angry outbursts and rage are unpleasant and often frightening to all who are involved, they are a normal response for the combat-ready nervous system. In fact, in a combat situation, a quick reaction to unexpected stimuli often meant the difference between life and death. Men who were combat-ready were perceived as being “able to lead the charge” and “keep the unit safe.” As a result they were respected and rewarded; however, in non-combat situations, this war-time programming backfires.

Bill,* a Marine Corps veteran, decides to take his family camping, and spends many days collecting the gear and making sure all the necessary items are packed and in the truck. He leaves the coordination of food and cooking utensils up to his wife. The family drives four hours to a remote spot on a lake in northern Oregon. While Bill and the kids are setting up camp, his wife starts preparing dinner – only to realize that she has left the chicken marinating in the fridge at home. When she tells Bill, he accuses her of trying to undermine his camping experience. When Judy apologizes and attempts to explain, Bill flies into a rage and refuses to talk to her for the rest of the trip.

Joe, a former lieutenant in the Army, is driving with his wife when someone carelessly pulls in front of him on the freeway. Joe becomes enraged. His heart rate accelerates, adrenaline rushes through his muscles, and he begins yelling and cursing as he chases the offender in an attempt to force him off the freeway. Fearful of his intense reaction, Joe’s wife sees him as out of control, and demands that he slow down and take her home. Joe, on the other hand, is doing all he can to control his fantasy of destruction, and believes he is exhibiting immense control. Weeks later, while describing the incident to a neighbor, Joe’s recollection of the incident again stirs up his reactivity, and he continues to find justification for his rage.

In a combat situation, a quick reaction to unexpected stimuli often meant the difference between life and death.

It’s holiday time, and Paul, another veteran, and his family are expected for dinner at the home of his wife’s relatives. Over the years, Paul has opted out of most social events, often canceling at the last minute. This year, because of his wife’s persistence, he agrees to go. As the date of the dinner gets closer, Paul is sleeping less than usual at night – if that’s possible – and he is more anxious during the day. Paul clearly regrets his decision to attend, and on the way to the dinner, announces, “I won’t be staying long.” Upon their arrival, alert and anxious, Paul quickly greets the other guests and then positions himself near the door. After a very short time – a very long time to him – he informs his wife that he is ready to go. Although she points out that they have just arrived, he tells her that he’ll wait outside. Knowing that if she doesn’t leave soon an argument will ensue, Paul’s wife goes through her excuse list and stays only a short while longer. While Paul believes that he has been very generous by agreeing to go out, his wife is upset because they had to leave so early.

Before he had therapy and learned how to work with situations that trigger intense reactions, Vince described his reactivity as a “bomb with no fuse,” an appropriate description since it seemed as if anything that disrupted his current state of being or surroundings caused some degree of reactivity. Muddy cat prints on the living room carpet, the doorbell ringing unexpectedly, a gesture or tone of voice, the sound of helicopters flying overhead, the phone ringing after 9 p.m., information on the news or images in a movie, or a gas tank that was half full – any of these daily events, particularly those that he interpreted as a “lack of regard,” transported Vince back to a combat-ready state, which often resulted in angry outbursts, slammed doors, or isolation. As a result, his children and wife “walked on eggshells” and wondered what they had done wrong, leaving Vince feeling frustrated and misunderstood.

What is this reactivity all about? Why does it happen? What can be done to manage the outbursts or other unpleasant feelings?

Military Conditioning and the Brain

In order to prepare young soldiers for combat, the military spends a great deal of time conditioning the soldier’s mind as well as his body. Conditioning the soldier’s brain for combat is the goal of basic and advanced training, since this conditioning is what enables a soldier to be alert, intelligent, and devoid of emotion. When confronting danger, a soldier’s brain must instantly be able to accomplish three things:

  • Choose the appropriate action – flight, fight, or freeze. This occurs in the primal area of the brain.
  • Implement reasoning, which occurs in the neo-cortex.
  • Bypass the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system.

Conditioning the soldier’s brain for combat is the goal of basic and advanced training.

For most soldiers, this mode of brain function, when conditioned over a sustained period of time, becomes dominant. Since this pattern is based on survival, and because survival overrides other functions, unless there is intervention, the brain is likely to remain in combat mode. As a result of this combat-ready state, which results in alertness and strength, many biochemical responses occur in the body. For example, cortisol and adrenaline levels are high, muscles are tense, heart rate increases, and breathing becomes shallow and high in the chest.

Unfortunately, upon return from Vietnam there was no desensitization from the combat mode.

Unfortunately, upon return from Vietnam, as well as in other theaters, there was no desensitization from the combat mode. Even if it had been offered, it would have been unlikely that any returning Vietnam soldier would have opted for the extended time to desensitize. What’s more, accurate information regarding readjustment was not available to soldiers and their families, and most problems were misdiagnosed, or treatments were ineffective. Consequently, that primal flight, flight, freeze trigger remained on ready alert. Its ally, the neo-cortex, could always come up with a justification or story to go with its reactivity, and as a result, combat readiness remained a way of existing day and night. Time alone will not change this response. It is as if there is still a young soldier inside who remains on “lock and load.” Therefore, the only “safe” emotion is anger.

Two voices are going on inside the veteran, and the combat voice usually wins since it is conditioned for survival.

There is no way for families, loved ones, and even the veterans themselves to understand this reactivity on their own. Two voices are going on inside the veteran, and the combat voice usually wins since it is conditioned for survival. In situations like the scenarios affecting Joe, Bill, Paul, and Vince, the veteran experiences simultaneous mixed messages. One message is logically oriented into the current time and place. The other is still conditioned to combat, and has learned to translate its reaction into present events. Because of the continued translation into the present, time does not heal war trauma; however, awareness of how the young soldier’s conditioning affects his behavior today can create understanding and facilitate dialogue that reduces the impact of life’s circumstances. For example, Bill’s wife could remind him that forgetting the chicken was not a life and death situation. There was a store a mile away, and she had packed many other things to eat. Joe’s wife could have reduced the charge by suggesting he take four really deep breaths—to give him some breathing room before taking any action. Paul and his wife could solve future problems by taking separate cars so that Paul is free to go when he needs to and his wife can stay and enjoy her family without making excuses.

Methods like these can help, but it also important that these angry veterans see qualified professionals for help with their reactivity. Experience has shown that treatment results are best when the entire family participates and gets the help needed to bring about a healthy balance.

Translation to Civilian Life

Knowing how combat messages translate into the non-combat world can also help create understanding and empathy, and help defuse potentially reactive situations.




*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.


Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at maryten@jps.net.


Jan FishlerJan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.